Sunday, June 3, 2012

To Lost Toys

            As a child with a fertile imagination, my toys were precious to me. They were the totems I used to encourage my day dreams and often times lead my mind in new directions.
            While not every toy was precious, even an average toy would become very important to me if it went missing. There were so many times that I emptied my entire toy box, crawled under my bed, or scoured the outdoors searching for lost Ninja Turtles. On more than one occasion I had to climb under the bleachers at a basketball game after dropping a toy through the slits under the seats.
            So coming across this scene one night at a neighborhood park, I couldn't help but empathize with the former owner of these toys. I was there so many times. I imagined the boy playing with these cars and getting distracted by something cool and amazing and running off to get a closer look at it. Then he’s called in by a parent, being told that it is time to go home and, in the rush, the once beloved vehicles are accidentally abandoned.
            I remember the worry that a child feels while searching for a favorite toy and the startled shock when the realization hits that it is lost. If he is like me, he begged his mom to go back and help him look. The inevitable conversation about responsibility and taking care of ones toys is the only response the boy gets, which while necessary does nothing to console a troubled heart.
            Looking on in the moment, I wondered if I could help, but what could I actually do? I had no idea who they belonged to or how long they’d been left there. There was no lost and found. If I took the toys, all I’d really be doing was stealing the one chance that the kid will came back and find his toys right where he left them.
            So I took this picture, tossed up a short and honest prayer that they’d be found, and moved on hoping that these lost toys would be found once again in the loving arms of their previous owner.

Monday, May 7, 2012

To My High School Biology Teacher


Dear Mrs. Rubenstien,

            I hope this letter finds you well. I haven’t been back to the old high school in several years, but from what my mother tells me, things are going very well. You will be pleased to hear that I recently earned a Bachelor’s degree and have a stable job working for a landscaping company. I also do some freelance writing, when I get the chance. 
            I must convey to you my thanks for the seemingly endless pages of notes you gave our class during my two years of high school Biology. The frantic, fast paced, short hand note taking style that I developed in your class helped prepare me for my college lecture courses. Also the last minute study habits and 11th hour memorization techniques, which I perfected in your class, proved to be the critical difference between  “D+”s and  “C”s on multiple occasions. For this, I am eternally grateful.
            I’m sure you will be delighted to hear that I have also begun substitute teaching on the side for additional income. Teaching in the public schools has stretched me in many ways, not the least of which is a new found, deep respect to your dedication to teaching high school students for all of these years. Lord only knows how you’ve maintained your sanity throughout, but I’m sure that there is a special place in Heaven for people like you.
         I must make a long overdue concession. In high school, while I was feeding my dreams of becoming a writer, I often asked myself (usually as I was cramming for a section review) “When will I ever need to know this stuff?”
         This question has been answered. Several weeks ago, I was called in to substitute teach Jr. High Biology. I was expected to help the students with their homework and answer any questions they might have. So, to be equipped to do my job, I got to the school early and began frantically reviewing the previous days assignment and the lesson for that day. It is a unique form of humility that one acquires while cramming before class when you are the one teaching the material. The class went well for the most part; I didn't give to many incorrect answers (Those tough biology questions are a heck of a lot easier when you're holding the answer key).
            So yes, you win Ruby. It didn’t even take that long for me to find out that, yes, I did in fact need to know some of this stuff. I hope that you will take this admission graciously and will not rub it in my face too harshly should our paths cross again.
            Best wishes for the present school year. Keep pushing the notes and remind your students that they should really pay attention, because they never know what adventures await them after high school or what they’ll wish they remembered after the tests are finished.

                                                                                                              Andrew S.


P.S. Is it too late to come in for an extra study session? The 8th grade has a big test coming up and I want to be ready...just in case.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dear Library Staff,


Dear Library Staff

            I recently received a letter from you containing a flash drive that I'd forgotten at one of your computers. Getting my flash drive back absolutely made my day. I figured it was long gone, never to be seen again. I am so very glad for policy of not only keeping such things but also giving the extra effort to return them the their owners.
            I feel the need to explain why this particular piece of software is so precious to me. While my occupation of in landscaping, I am also an aspiring writer (emphasis on aspiring). I’ve been working on the first chapters of a fantasy novel. Finding the time and motivation to buckle down and work out the fine details can be difficult, so as a means of personal coercion I told my thirteen-year-old niece about the project and promised her to let her see the first chapters. She’s a fan of Sci-fi/Fantasy and also a super sharp young lady, with an intellect and a wit that exceed the average teenager. The deal was that she would give me honest feedback and if I didn’t get the chapters to her before a certain that had free reign to “make fun of me”. She gladly accepted.
            Unfortunately, the computer file containing my infant novel became corrupted, which erased the project. This wouldn’t have been an issue if I hadn’t lost track of this flash drive which had the only other copy of the file. When I received your letter with my flash drive, I did what some people might call a “happy dance” followed by a impromptu song, boasting on the greatness of libraries everywhere.
            While I am vastly relieved to them back in my possession, I did miss my deadline and, at my next family gathering, will no doubt be subject to the tauntings of a snarky teenager. At least I can finally get back to work on my book.
            Again, thank you for the returning the flash drive. I will attempt to be less forgetful in future visits. Thank you so much for the services you provide.

Andrew S.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Berlin/New Berlin

I love the state of Illinois. I really do.

The same state that brought you San Jose (pronounced like San Joes), Athen (Aye-thens) and Cairo (Care-o) now bring not one, but two brilliantly original names for obscure, small central Illinois towns.

Part of me wonders: do the town's residents tell everyone that they live in "Bear-lin" or "New Bear-Lin"? Something to think about.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Minor Tragedy

            Life is full of little disappointments. Every one of us have enough real problems in life to deal with, so we try not to add any unnecessary worry to life. But when I saw these M&Ms on the side of the road, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Not a deep sorrow, but a compassionate pity for their previous owner.
            I’ve been there too many times. I’m anticipating the first bite of a slice of pizza or a cookie, then, in my clumsiness, I drop it or someone bumps into me and before I know it, my food is on the floor. The disappointment that one feels in this moment is visceral. The anticipation of a sugary treat replaced with solemn awareness of just how imperfect the world is.
            Normally this is where you have a dilemma. You look around to see if anyone can see me, who might look down on you for eating food off the floor. I’m a frequent practitioner of the 5 second rule, given the food in appropriate. Chips, cookies, or pizza are normally fine, but one must be careful with any moist foods that collect dirt easily, such as oranges, pasta, or a scoop of ice cream. In almost every circumstance, M&Ms will be fine off the floor, due to their famous hard candy shell. But not these M&Ms. The 5 second rule is practically null and void outdoors. You just have no idea what been on that sidewalk, lawn, or road.
            And it’s not bad enough that some M&Ms got spilled on the ground. But, this was likely most of the bag, if not the entire thing! At least if you spill a few, you’ve got the rest of the bag to console you. But just imagine if you will the moment when your 5 minute chocolate break is completely stolen from you by a foul trick of gravity. This is a deep personal tragedy if ever there was one.
            It goes without saying that there are much greater tragedies than a simple loss of candy. We are continually reminded of them day in and day out, in the news and sometimes in our own back yard. Someone spills a their coffee or drops their cheeseburger and the world will barely notice. But that doesn’t make it stink any less when we’re robbed of our life’s little joys. All we can do is remember the old idiom about spilt milk and keep things in perspective, knowing that we still must get through the day and there are a lot more bags of M&Ms out there.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Loving Memory...

Author's Note: Several months ago, I had a dream about my late father. I don’t remember many details, only that I saw him and spoke with him; however within the dream I still knew that he had passed away. I awoke in the middle of this dream, blurring the lines of reality; I felt as though I had just spoken with Dad and he was simply in the other room. Once I was fully awake, I grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down the thoughts and feelings that were stirring in my head and heart.

Today is my father’s birthday, and I cannot think of a better time to share this piece, which is nearly verbatim what I wrote that morning after waking from the dream.

If I saw my dad again...

 First I would give him a hug, maybe even a kiss on the cheek-
the kind of expression that would have embarrassed me before.

I’d ask him where he’d been and how long he was staying.
Then, I’d ask if we could go see a movie, like we always used to.
No. Dinner first, then a movie. We'd have so much to talk about.

I’d tell him about my friends and my jobs
and all the things I'd learned from him, without even realizing it.
I’d tell him I finally learned how to tie a square knot,
after the years he spent trying to teach me how.

"Let's go on a trip," I'd say.
Maybe Chicago, like we did when I was 6.
We'd go swimming in the lake, and I'd show off how good of a swimmer I am now.
Then go to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game - something we never did.

We’d go downtown and eat at that place where he and Mom ate all the time.
 I’d ask him about his life and listen to his stories about college and how he met Mom.
We’d talk for hours. I’d try to listen, hanging onto every detail,
then anxiously eye the check, hoping that he’d pay.

I would tell him everything I never said.
That I wished he could have been around longer,
and that I’m heartbroken that my kids won’t meet him.

I’d apologize for all the times I acted like I didn’t care:
“There were plenty of times when I secretly hated you, just because it felt good.
I didn’t think you cared or I didn’t care if you cared. I just didn’t like you.
But now I see your heart; that you loved me so much that it hurt.
Nowadays I sometimes remind myself of you and I thank God that I do.

"You taught me how to talk to people, to let them know they matter.
The way you joked with the bank tellers and Mom’s co-workers, never too busy to chat.
I know that I talk to kids the same way you did,
 always down on their level, always with a smile."

I’d ask about Grandpa and how things were when he died.
“Were you on good terms? What things did you not get a chance to say?
Did you know that he loved you? Did you know if he respected you?”
I’d sit and wait for him to answer, trying to catch every word, every emotion.

We’d get home late, but I wouldn’t be ready to sleep:
“Let me make a pot of coffee...or I could cook you something.”
But Dad would insist that it was time to go to bed.
He would sit down at his desk, saying “I’ve got a little work I need to do.”

“Dad...I have so much I still want to talk about.”

“Don’t worry, A.W.” he’d say, more stately than he did in life. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

Happy birthday, Dad.

My dad, Walt Swearingen, on his 60th birthday with his grandson

My dad and me, when I was in high school, working on a combine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An alter to Saint Steve

I seriously didn't mean to do this.

One of my pastors made a joke recently about Apple Founder  Steve Jobs being recently "sainted" and "having performed at least three miracles". He was just teasing, of course, but this week as I was cleaning my living room I noticed that I had inadvertently mixed Steve Jobs's biography in with a stack of Bibles.
Coincidence...? Of course! But it's funny none the less.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Dared to Discipline

             A couple sundays ago I was teaching Sunday school in our 4th and 5th grade class room. I started teaching this age group during the summer and they’re a lot of fun. The kids are smart enough to talk and interact with, but they haven’t gotten to the social anxiety stage of Jr. High.
            However like any large group of kids, they can be tough to manage some days. Our childrens’ pastor, Mike, has lately been encouraging me to lead the kids with a stronger hand, saying “You do a good job teaching the Bible and you’re funny, but you can’t be afraid to take charge if the kids are acting up.”
            Not long after Mike told me this, I got to practice this new discipline.
            The lesson was on Psalm 23, focusing on God’s provision. From the time we sat down, a group of boys in the back were causing trouble and I kept having to quiet them down and get them back on task. I asked the question “Who is someone who provides for you?” One of the boys, who I’m pretty sure was at the church for the first time, raised his hand.
            “Yeah, you in the back.” I said, eager to hear what he had to say. “Who is someone who takes care of you?”
            He grinned and said “Your Mom.”
            This was the last straw. I puffed up my chest and pointed my finger to let him know that I was not okay with him cracking wise during discussion. I was halfway through telling the young man that he needed to quit messing and grow up when I realized that when he said “Your Mom” he wasn’t making a crass “Yo’ Mama” joke, but he was in fact answering my question. I graciously allowed him to finish what he was saying but by this point the whole class was laughing and I struggled to maintain my composure, shaking my head at how foolishly brash I had been.
            The eventually class calmed down and I was able to continue with the lesson without doing or saying anything else. I ended up having to separate the boys, moving the most talkative of the group to isolated corners of the group. I even moved one of them up to where all the girls were sitting, which still counts as punishment at that age.
            Such are the growing pains of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. I survived the class and had a good laugh at myself. I don’t regret coming down on the kid. I did what I thought was best and I willingly admitted when I was wrong (even though it was dramatically obvious to everyone else). And next time, before I lay down the law with one my students, I’ll probably take an extra moment to think before I speak, just in case.

Psalm 23

Proverbs 13:24 ;)

Monday, January 23, 2012

It's Not Enough...

Author's note: I don't want to take the wind out of this by talking about it too much, so let me just say that all this is the result of a tough night of praying and struggling through issues of sin, repentance and worship. It wasn't easy, but my prayers got through and God answered.

This piece is a little bit of the aftershock of that night.

It dawned on me today. I realized that I can’t stand believing all this. Believing in God. Believing that He’s there. Taking His Word for it that He is always right.

I’ve followed for years. Living out this faith the best that I can, but now it just hurts.

You spoke to me when I was a boy, showing me that I wasn’t alone; that I had a God looking after my affairs. I heard your voice and it made everything all better.

You have shown your glory. You’ve changed my world. You showed me why I was made.
But that was all a long time ago. I have believed for so long and now I don’t know where I am.

My eyes have avoided impure things. My mind has resisted impure thoughts. I’ve chosen the path of least temptation. I pushed back all the fear and doubt. But now it’s accumulated and overflows out of my heart.

I’ve closed my eyes a thousand times and did as I was told, but I’ve yet to stumble across the abundant life that was promised. I bowed my head one last time saying over and over again,

“I believe...I believe...I believe...I believe...”

...and it’s not enough...

Was I lied to all this time? Was it all crap? Did I make up the sound of your voice? Did you lie...?

It can’t be fake. The might of your glory has been there too often. But now where are you? Where’ve you gone. I don’t hear you anymore. You’re not here.

I can’t just believe it anymore.

I’ll go find you. I’ve seen your glory and there is nothing else like it. None can challenge your claim to the throne of Eternity.

You’re not lost. You’ve just moved. You’re always up to something; doing something new. And it is always better than the last thing.

Why would I settle for less than you? I haven’t seen your face, but you’re the most real part of my life. Anything else is just second rate leftovers next to who you are.

I’m not seeking my own glory, nor respect, nor honor. I’m not looking for fulfillment, enlightenment or even salvation.

All there You. That is enough.

What else could I do? Go back to my gods of people, money and prestige? Why? I’ve seen their Maker.
All this I have seen and believe and it’s all just a glimpse; the slightest taste of what’s to come. You will only become greater in my sight as I seek you more.

That is my only option.

You are in the valleys, you look out from the mountain tops and you are lord over both. It will be you who delivers from rising waters and the shearing cliffs. And I need to trust that you’ve got me.

I believe and always shall. That was the beginning. You found me and turned me ‘round.
Now it’s my turn to give chase; my chance to pursue you... here I come.